The point the Toronto Maple Leafs earned in their 5-4 shootout loss
to Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins was huge on Saturday.
Huge because they continued to exhibit plenty of fight despite a rough start from goaltender James Reimer and his teammates. Huge because they played well enough to overcome an early 3-1 deficit to tie the game at 4-4 before an excited crowd at Air
Canada Centre and gain that valuable point.
Huge because even though the Maple Leafs played well in back-to-back losses in Boston and at home to Pittsburgh, to start the second half of the condensed schedule with a pair of regulation-time defeats would have been distressing.
Distressing because the Maple Leafs faithful doesn't need a history lesson. Toronto started well this season with a 15-9-0 record for 30 points. But that was the same amount of points they amassed after a 14-8-2 start in 2011-12.
Everybody from the players to the front office to the fans felt a playoff berth was in the cards last year, too.
But then came the late season collapse. The Maple Leafs still were in eighth spot, three points ahead of the Washington Capitals with 24 games left on the docket. A 6-14-4 finish, however, buried a potential spot in the playoffs six-feet under.
Will it be different this time? Will the Maple Leafs end the longest current streak of playoff futility - seven seasons in a row - among the 30 NHL teams?
As the NHL season enters its final seven weeks, there are signs that this is a playoff team. The Maple Leafs appear to be better coached under Randy Carlyle than during Ron Wilson's time in Toronto. The players appear to have bought in.
The penalty killing has been better. The goaltending has been more consistent. With Nazem Kadri and Clarke MacArthur the offensive attack has more depth. With the addition of Frazer McLaren, Mark Fraser and Colton Orr's comeback the Maple Leafs has been tougher to play against.
As Carlyle has lamented many times in the past 10 days, there still is plenty of room for improvement. They need to be better at home, especially since 12 of their final 22 games will be played at the Air Canada Centre.
They also need to cut down on the number of shots they surrender (31.9 per game, 26th in the league). Still, the Maple Leafs seem to be on the track to host their first playoff game since May 4, 2004.
Take their last five games for example. They beat the New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils and Ottawa Senators for a three-game win streak in which the Maple Leafs particularly didn't play that well. But they rebounded with two better outings against two of the best teams in the East in the last two games. Unfortunately, for the Maple Leafs, they came away with only one out of a possible four points.
Now they embark on another difficult week. They begin in Winnipeg on Tuesday, come back home to meet up with the Penguins again on Thursday and then they have a return date with the Jets next Saturday.
The Maple Leafs have 31 points with 22 games left. The consensus is that 54 points will be the number that pushes a team into the playoffs in the East. Twenty-three points in 22 games seems doable for Toronto.
But then again it did last year, too.
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